(Quick Note: Yes, this is yet another one of these blog entries that is running a little late. In my defense the eight-week-old gentleman in the photo above is magnificently distracting.)
Even the greatest of individual plots isn’t enough to sustain an entire novel length narrative entirely by itself. To avoid a flagging pace and the dreaded specter of “padding,” you need subplots, and they can be tricky things to deal with.
First, let’s look at some of the positive aspects of subplots in a novel:
- They add depth to the story and characters (never a bad thing.)
- If the subplot focuses more on secondary and tertiary characters, it helps those character seem more well-rounded and realistic, and thus less “flat” compared to your protagonists
- As hinted at above, a sub plot adds to your word count, which is vital in the mad thirty day dash to fifty thousand that is NaNoWriMo.
- It helps build tension as you can leave a cliffhanger or particularly suspenseful moment in your main plot at the end of a chapter and then start the next chapter with an unrelated subplot. Sometimes it’s almost as much fun to torture your readers almost as much as your characters
Of course subplots, like any story element, are not without their pitfalls. One of the most common is that instead of your story having one clearly defined main plot with subplots dovetailing, paralleling or otherwise mirroring it, you end up with subplots that grow to take over the story, or rise to prominence so that you have two or even three “A” plots, which can be satisfying, but can also end up being a somewhat disjointed read, as if it were multiple separate novels mashed up into one thing.
As one of the most common sub-plots is a romantic entanglement between characters, this is also an element that can strangle the life out of a story incredibly quickly. For proof of this, go up to a random nerd you know (and if you’re reading this blog, you know at least one nerd, I guarantee it) and utter this infamous quote from Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones –
“I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft and smooth.”
They winced, didn’t they? That’s because the utterly chemistry-free “romance” subplot between Anakin and Padme overwhelmed the story of the rise of a Galactic Empire and the genesis of Darth Vader that the Star Wars prequels should have been about.
Sometimes the subplot overwhelming the apparent main plot can be done effectively. For example, in Peter F. Hamilton’s The Reality Dysfunction, the main plot seems to be about smuggling and revenge against a backdrop of galactic politics, an almost Han Solo-esque story. Then, the dead start coming back to life and the true main plot of the novel and the trilogy it’s a part of starts.
Another temptation with subplots is the impulse to lard up your story with some many of them that it becomes a dense and impenetrable maze to everyone except the author (and even they’re not immune in some cases, I’m pretty sure Chris Carter himself couldn’t explain the main plot of The X-Files by the end of the 6th or 7th season). This seems to be especially prevalent in the genre I’ve opted to write in for 2013’s NaNoWriMo, fantasy, which is why so many planned trilogies often end up with anywhere from four to seven books.